Brow Beat

What’s Missing From Her

Joaquin Phoenix in Her.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) stares at one of his many screens.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze’s Her tells the love story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. Dystopic but tender, the film takes our zeitgeist-y obsession with smartphones to its dramatic extreme: If you love it so much then why don’t you marry it?

Her topped many of 2013’s 10-best film lists and convinced critics that a love affair between a beta male and his beta software could be the year’s realest on-screen relationship. But despite its insight into our love for little screens, Her commits the most hackneyed error of the big screen: It fails to present us with a single convincing female character—one whose subjectivity and sexuality exist independent of the film’s male protagonist or its male viewers.

Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is just that: a voice. Unlike the fragile and wounded Theodore, she seems grounded (despite her home in the cloud) and self-sufficient (despite her status as a luxury item). But Jonze has presented us with the fantasy of womanhood unencumbered by the female form. And the women in the film who do have bodies are, like Samantha, mere foils for Theodore’s emotional arc.

Samantha is initially untroubled by her disembodied state—it is only when sex with Theodore becomes a possibility that she pines for embodiment, wishing for a back for him to scratch and a cheek for him to caress. She shows no interest in a body with which to eat, drink, or dance. She wants the body that Theodore longs for, and her lack is only a problem once it complements his own.

When Theodore and Samantha—spoiler alert—have sex, the screen fades to black. Staring into flat darkness, we hear Samantha and Theodore consummate their relationship. Their sex act is a speech act, and we are encouraged by the dark screen to find visual correlates for their aural cues. His voice has an obvious referent: the mustachioed Theodore in his Los Angeles apartment. But what do we envision when Samantha moans? After all, we don’t see “her” in Her.

When confronted with Samantha’s husky voice and a black screen, we, like Theodore, are left to our own psychosexual devices. We can project whatever image of female pleasure onto the film’s flat surface—onto Samantha’s flat surface—that we want. Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, suggests that Scarlett Johansson’s “lush physicality” is implied in Samantha’s voice—that it “helps fill in Samantha and give this ghostlike presence a vibrant, palpable form.” But our collectively imagined Scarlett-body is not Scarlett Johansson. It is a vague sketch of sex appeal, easier to control—and to fetishize—than any actual woman-seen.

New York magazine’s film critic David Edelstein calls the sex between Theodore and Samantha “literally transcendent” and says that the movie “raises the question: Do we even need our bodies? Or is it all in our brains?” Edelstein might hone these ontological questions. He doesn’t ask what is lost when the female body, in particular, is excised from the sex act—or what arises for Theodore, and for the film’s viewers, in its stead. Even if we don’t see Theodore’s orgasm in the darkened theater, we know its mechanics: We know how he gets off. But Samantha’s incorporeal coming, however hot it may sound, is a mystery. What makes her moan, it seems, is intimacy—an implication that reaffirms our retrograde sense of female pleasure as purely emotional, and of the female body as mysteriously unknowable.

Her’s supporting female characters, although embodied, are equally opaque. They, too, serve as sounding boards, screens, and reflections of Theodore’s wants, needs, and anxieties. His friend Amy (Amy Adams) is a video-game programmer, whose games traffic in mommy-mocking and horny housewife-shaming. She listens patiently to Theodore’s fears and reflects back optimism. Inexplicably neutered, she shows no sexual inclinations, neither for her soon-to-be ex husband, nor for Theodore—nor for her own operating system, a female voice who has become her (platonic) friend.

Theodore’s ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), is given one scene of hardened, careerist dialogue. She is otherwise relegated to Instagram-filtered flashbacks, in which her physicality is as much a figment of Theodore’s imagination as Samantha’s is. Theodore’s only human date, Amelia (Olivia Wilde), is perhaps the one vision that Her presents of embodied female sexuality. She dresses up, she drinks, she kisses. But her embodiment, we soon learn, is not a blessing but a buzzkill. Midmakeout she erupts into a fit of clock-ticking anxiety: Is Theodore going to sleep with her and not call back? At her age, she has to worry about men “wasting her time.” Confined by matter and mortality, she is a stand-in for Theodore’s own existential concerns. After this confrontation with embodied female angst, Theodore retreats into the eternal, incorporeal comfort of Samantha, and they have sex, and the screen goes dark.

One could argue that Jonze knows just what he’s doing with this fade to black—that he is foregrounding Samantha’s role as the dark screen upon which we can project our erotic and romantic fantasies. After all, Samantha’s voice is like a pronoun: her. It is a placeholder, standing in, as a pronoun does, for whatever we want. But where is the subject to complement this feminine object pronoun? Among all the film’s female characters, where is “she” in Her?